Vivienne Westwood AW 2019

Go to any of the capitols of Europe, Paris, Berlin, Rome, etc., and one is going to encounter protestors. Just this weekend, Paris police arrested 14 more people as the weekly yellow vest protests have continued in that city. London is no exception. As one travels in and out around the city, especially the most public of spaces where gathering at least a small audience is rather easy, there are protestors for Brexit, against Brexit, and at least a dozen different other causes all claiming to need one’s attention right this moment or else we are all going to DIE.

Protest is nothing new for designer Vivienne Westwood. The world has long been aware of her activism for environmental causes, particularly those related to the oceans and preservation of the rain forests. There is typically one or two slogan pieces in each collection that address one cause or another and most seasons everyone acknowledges the cause, perhaps makes a modest donation and goes on. This season, however, things were quite different and as a result, there are more than a few people upset and uncomfortable with the tone and manner of this season’s show.

I have wrestled with exactly how to tell this tale, for it certainly sounds too fantastic to be the truth. I dare say that ten years from now those who survived whatever it is we end up calling this experience will be challenged that they must be remembering incorrectly, that no designer would produce such an embarrassing and counter-productive spectacle. I assure you, however, like any other story that eventually becomes a fairy tale or a Tim Burton movie (with Johnny Depp playing Ms. Westwood), everything I’m about to tell you is absolutely true.

Something was obviously out of sorts from the very beginning. Typically, Ms. Westwood’s husband, Andreas Kronthaler, is credited as her creative director and is out front with the models, very present, very visible. The past several seasons, he’s been credited directly as the collections have been billed as Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood. I have gone back over photos of the cast repeatedly, however, and can’t find him anywhere. There’s no mention of him in the show’s title and no credit given to him in anything that has crossed my path. Now, in all fairness, I don’t see everything so I am more than willing to accept the possibility that there’s something to which I was not made aware. Still, his absence out front was rather conspicuous.

The set was frighteningly normal as well. Westwood shows are known for their more bizarre qualities a fair portion of which is the unusual often hand-made sets around which models traverse. This season’s set was a very traditional raised square catwalk, the kind that most of us have not seen used in at least 20 years or more.

When the show began, though, it quickly became evident that Ms. Westwood had brought everyone to this place under the pretense of a fashion show so that she might loudly and forcibly make her case for everything from environmentalism to anti-Capitalism to anti-consumerism (yes, you read that correctly), to anti-land ownership, and probably a few other things that escaped my attention. Her “models” were actors wearing headsets so that their speeches could be heard. Among them predominantly was Rose McGowan who spoke directly for Ms. Westwood. Ms. Westwood’s muse from the 1980s, Sara Stockbridge, John Sauven, Executive Director of Greenpeace UK, economist and author Fred Harrison, and multiple members of something called Intellectuals United, a group apparently formed by Ms. Westwood for the express purpose of berating the rest of us for not being smart enough nor having enough culture. Instead of watching people trot across the catwalk to a pleasant tune or some raucous piece of heavy metal, guests were preached at for several minutes, constantly berated for how we all consume too much, waste too much, and don’t have enough culture to save humanity.

Not that there wasn’t fashion there. Close your ears and hum just enough to drown out the vitriol and one sees a litany of Westwood classics, the plaid suit, the corseted dresses, the jumpers, coats, and even the spiked fetish shoes were back. Separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and it was an interesting review of Westwood hits mildly updated. Here, I’ll take a breath and give you a few samples.

Added to the list of oddities were linen overlays with designs that looked vaguely like playing cards. The playing cards were referenced several times throughout the spectacle, how Ms. Westwood had created them to bring attention to all the various problems around the world. There was uncertainty as to whether the cards as they were presented were simply symbolic or if they’ll be on the website at some point. I double-checked and they’re not out there just yet. If at any point they are, however, they could be a decent investment commemorating one of the strangest fashion shows I’ve ever witnessed.

Finally, after bums had gone numb and people had long ago started shifting uncomfortably in their seat, the models stood around the catwalk as Ms. Westwood finally came out, said a few defiant words about “buy less, choose well, make it last,” a mantra she has held for some time now, and then started singing much as one would expect from a 77-year-old woman whose career has involved a lot of shouting. At this point, I found myself fighting back a lump in my throat because this was something one sees from their great-grandmother whose mind is slowly being consumed by dementia. She sang the little song, “In and Out The Window,” trying to get the crowd to sing along (they didn’t), trying to weave in and out among the models (there wasn’t room) and finally, feebly, making her way off stage, audibly blaming the microphone for the bad sound. What we saw at that moment wasn’t the proud, defiant designer protesting the status quo. What we saw was a confused old woman caught in some fantasy of saving the world.

Reaction within the industry has been mixed. Some (US Vogue) have called Ms. Westwood a hypocrite for decrying consumerism while attempting to sell clothes. Others (British Vogue), give the show a dismissive, “Oh, it’s just Vivienne, you know how she is,” pat on the head. Finding an appropriate balance is difficult. Many of the environmental issues Ms. Westwood has raised are quite valid and the alarm sounded by scientists recently might justify some elevated attention. At the same time, no one appreciates being held captive to a sermon while simultaneously being goaded to purchase $195 t-shirts and $600 dresses. Would not a request for charitable contributions been more appropriate? Perhaps presenting practical suggestions one might take on a personal level, something that doesn’t involve accosting heads of state.

Video of this spectacle is on Ms. Westwood’s website if one cares to see for themselves. The skeptic in me feels that something is very, very wrong with this scenario. What we saw today is not the Vivienne Westwood we’ve seen in seasons past but I’m not close enough to the situation to define what the problem is. I still want to know where Andreas was. The Westwood PR team is typically pretty quick to drop a note in my inbox when I get something wrong, so perhaps I’ll have some answers by morning.

This was not a fun show. I’m concerned.

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